On Sunday, September 12, the Humanities Truck participated in the Adams Morgan Day Festival, an annual neighborhood celebration featuring vendors, performances, history and culture.
We contributed to these last categories by displaying a photo exhibit/essay created by local photographer and Adams Morgan resident Nancy Shia titled, “Adams Morgan Once and Now: Human Needs or Developers Greed?”. Through photographs depicting how key places in Adams Morgan have evolved over the past 45 years, the exhibit explores questions of gentrification and representation across the neighborhood’s physical landscape. These photographs beg further questions: Who calls Adams Morgan home? Who do these spaces serve and prioritize?
Take, for example, the building located at 2414 18th Street NW, which once housed a secondhand store affiliated with the community mental health organization known as The Green Door, now a convenience store. Another former community hub is the site of the old Ontario Theatre, presently a condominium. Continuities are evident as well—the Safeway on 1747 Columbia Road NW has existed since 1978.
After arranging these photographs and captions on the Truck, we invited festival goers to engage with the history of the neighborhood. Most Adams Morgan residents recognized at least one place in proximity to their home they frequented on a daily basis.
When asked about my favorite photograph, I pointed out the Imperial Apartment photo pairing from 1980 and present-day. The sign of one resident, advocating to keep the building, reads “Homes not Offices,” a poignant comparison to the current Imperial site, where the company Venture X—who rents out professional co-working spaces—broadcasts an office opening in 2022.
In addition to guiding passers-by through the photo exhibit, we invited visitors to participate in short-form oral history interviews about their relationship to Adams Morgan, the places they value in the neighborhood, and how those places may have changed.
Long-time resident Perry King lamented the loss of ginkgo trees that formerly lined the streets of Adams Morgan, cut down to widen parking areas—trees he used to sit under when he was a street vendor on the corner of 18th and Columbia Street.
Narrators Margaux and Osha discussed the vibrancy and international character of Columbia and 18th Streets, and the rapid changes these streets have undergone in just the last few years. The push for new upscale restaurants and apartment buildings in conjunction with the pandemic have made it difficult for existing restaurants to hold their ground.
Stories of change were not always stories of loss. Linda Zottoli shared her experiences with the vacant lot that was transformed into a playground and officially dedicated as Community Park West in 1977. In that same year, part of the Adams Morgan Latino Festival took place in the park. In 1994, the park was renamed Walter Pierce Park in honor of the neighborhood and community advocate—and DC activist—who championed its advent.
Interviews spanned a range of perspectives about the transformation of Adams Morgan. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau told us that change is inevitable, but as long as those changes meet the needs of the community, then they are positive.
Like in the past, the neighborhood is engaged in an ongoing struggle over place and identity. At the event, Nancy Shia also displayed her exhibit at the Plaza on the corner of 18th and Columbia in front of the SunTrust Bank, itself an example of contested space. Since the ‘70s, Adams Morgan residents have held a public easement on this private lot, best known as the home of the Adams Morgan Farmers Market. Current plans, however, threaten demolition of the Plaza to make space for a luxury condo, and plaza advocates have organized in response.
Festivals like Adams Morgan Day can create opportunities for celebration, remembrance, reflection, and challenge. With the contributions of Nancy Shia and the visitors who took the time to reflect on places in their neighborhood, the Humanities Truck was able to help showcase the importance of Adams Morgan’s history and community.